Decision-Making, Lite

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DoD photo / Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

President Obama at the Pentagon with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Defense Department's civilian leaders in January 2012.

How much outside advice – from the Pentagon and other places – does a President need before making national-security decisions? Plainly he doesn’t need any, short of going to war (and even that is now in question, as we’ll get to later).

But it’s good politics to share such decision-making. First of all, it invests the wider circle in the policy’s ultimate success. Secondly, when things go wrong – and invariably, they do – it’s better not to be the only one holding the bag.

We noted recently the dearth of advice President Obama got as he made his decision to cut the 66,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan by 34,000 – more than half – over the coming year.

It seemed just a little strange that the Army’s No. 2 officer – now off to run U.S. Central Command, which includes Afghanistan – knew nothing of the number.

“I was not a part of the process that helped to generate the proposals for the numbers of troops to be drawn down, and the rate at which they should be drawn down,” General Lloyd Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee at his Feb. 14 confirmation hearing, two days after Obama announced the figure during his State of the Union address.

Austin declined to say he supported the pace of the ramp down, when asked about it, and seemed to correct Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., when McCain concluded Austin had been “excluded” from the internal debate on the issue.

“I was not included,” Austin countered.

Even given your imminent responsibility overseeing the war in Afghanistan? McCain responded.

“I was not included,” Austin said again.

Then Battleland learned, from someone who has been in the tank with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in recent months, that the nation’s senior military advisers hadn’t discuss the wisdom of the 34,000 number, either. “The first time I heard the number 34,000,” said one senior military officer who was in the Joint Chiefs’ secret meeting room for the recent sessions, “was during the State of the Union.”

Why are such decisions being made without the input of senior U.S. military leaders? What’s the point of having a super-secret tank inside the Pentagon if the Joint Chiefs don’t use it to debate and devise the right military strategy? Plainly, the President got advice from Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Marine General John Allen, the four-star officer in command of the Afghan war at the time, and his successor, four-star Marine General Joe Dunford, who assumed command four days before the State of the Union speech. But what about everybody else?

Discussing the topic with former top Pentagon officials, both in an out of uniform, leads to several suggestions responsible for the current state of affairs.

First, the Pentagon itself has choked down on the flow of information, even among its most senior leaders. It was the one-two punch of the attacks of 9/11, combined with then-Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld’s close-hold management style, that has limited such military consultations, several officials say. The tight hold on information, they contend, continued into the tenures of defense secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta.

“Rumsfeld had been defense secretary the first time (1975-77) pre-Goldwater-Nichols,” one retired four-star officer says, referring to the 1986 law that empowered the chairman of the Joint Chiefs while diminishing the role of the service chiefs. “It’s been pretty much that way ever since: the Joint Chiefs have sort of taken a back seat, and many have complained about it.”

Rumsfeld also didn’t care for the increased clout given regional commanders, like U.S. Central Command, under Goldwater-Nichols, these officers say. He barred the term “commander-in-chief” – CINC (pronounced “sink”) — for combatant commanders, thinking it should be reserved for the President. And the regional commanders’ clout – represented by their four-star rank – was diluted once the guys actually running the wars one level beneath them were promoted to four-star rank, too.

In Iraq, the first four-star war commander was General George Casey (2004-07), following by Army generals David Petraeus (2007-08) Ray Odierno (2008-10) and Austin (2010-2011). In Afghanistan, the first U.S. four-star war commander was Army General Dan McNeill (2007-08), followed by Army generals David McKiernan (2008-09), Stanley McChrystal (2009-10) and Petraeus (2010-2011). The last pair of four-star officers in command have been Marine generals Allen (2011-13) and Dunford.

“This encourages Washington to deal directly with the field commander, keeping the CINC from really getting engaged, except for coming back for hearings,” the retired four-star says. “Regional commanders think differently than a theater commander who’s out there for a year or two, and they’ve changed commanders every year in Afghanistan.” That, in turn, removes the regional calculation from much recent U.S. war strategy. “None of these conflicts is bound within the borders of a single country,” another senior officer says. “The war in Afghanistan involves Pakistan, Iran, central Asia and NATO…but when all the focus is on the theater commander, the regional context tends to be ignored.”

The fact that the chiefs weren’t solicited for their views before deciding on how fast U.S. troops would pull out of Afghanistan has upset both currently-serving and retired senior officers. “The service chiefs’ voice is critically important,” says one, “because the service chiefs are the providers of the forces to the fight.

All three elements – giving theater commanders four stars, cutting down on input from regional commanders, and sidelining the service chiefs who together make up the Joint Chiefs of Staff – could cause trouble.

“The problem comes from making them four-stars, and letting them bypass the regional commanders and the Joint Chiefs,” the four-star officer says. “It sort of throws out the whole concept of Goldwater-Nichols, which was sort of this more collegial body that presented the best advice and offered differing views. It means you don’t know the long-term damage you’re doing, the consequences of your actions, you don’t know the regional impact of what you’re doing, and you don’t know the costs that you’re inflicting on the services – those are the downsides.”

A former top Pentagon civilian says he felt it was “vital” that “the service chiefs and the combatant commanders [were] fully involved in discussions about the key issues we were facing.” Such debates “are, by their nature, extremely complex and will benefit from the fullest possible consideration.”

And, he continues, there’s a benefit to expanding the number of those involved in such decisions to make the nation’s senior military leaders part of the process. “I found them to be entirely comfortable with the notion of civilian control,” he adds, “and all the more so when they felt consulted and respected by those civilians.”

This tendency to keep one’s military cards close to the presidential vest could come back to haunt Obama. It is already spreading to his civilian foreign-policy advisers, the Washington Post‘s David Ignatius warned in a Feb. 22 column, and he “is perilously close to groupthink.”

The same day, in the Wall Street Journal, Mackubin Owens, a professor at the Naval War College, said he is dismayed by reports that Marine General James Mattis was booted from his Central Command post (making room for Austin) because he disagreed too often with the White House’s view. “A president has every right to choose the generals he wants, but it is also the case that he usually gets the generals he deserves,” Owens wrote. “By pushing Gen. Mattis overboard, the administration sent a message that it doesn’t want smart, independent-minded generals who speak candidly to their civilian leaders. What other generals and admirals are likely to take from this is that they should go along to get along, a very bad message for the health of U.S. civil-military relations.”

The same bug apparently spread to the State Department as well. “My time in the Obama administration turned out to be a deeply disillusioning experience. The truth is that his administration made it extremely difficult for its own foreign-policy experts to be heard,” writes Vali Nasr, a former top aide to the late Richard Holbrooke, charged with managing the Afghan-Pakistan diplomatic portfolio during Obama’s first term. “The president had a truly disturbing habit of funneling major foreign-policy decisions through a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisors whose turf was strictly politics,” Nasr writes in an excerpt from his forthcoming book, The Dispensable Nation, published on the Foreign Policy website Monday.

This lack of consultation may not be limited to relations among elements of the Administration. James Webb – ex-Democratic senator from Virginia, Navy secretary during the Reagan Administration, and a highly-decorated Marine infantry officer in Vietnam – says the Administration is stiffing Congress, too (in part because Congress finds it convenient to avoid taking a stand on the use of military force that might turn too bloody for its constituents).

Congressional approval, which used to be a given in matters of war and peace, has become a quaint artifact of a bygone era, Webb argues in the latest issue of The National Interest.

“In May 2012, after what was officially termed `a year-and-a-half of negotiations,’ President Obama traveled overnight to Afghanistan in order to sign a strategic partnership agreement with Afghan president Hamid Karzai. The agreement was characterized by the White House as `a legally binding executive agreement, undertaken between two sovereign nations,'” Webb writes. “It is difficult to understand how any international agreement negotiated, signed and authorized only by our executive branch of government can be construed as legally binding in our constitutional system. And, with respect to Afghanistan, one strains to find the rationale under which the president alone holds the power to commit our country to a long-term economic and security arrangement that far transcends his authority as commander in chief to oversee combat operations against international terrorism. If such an agreement were `legally binding,’ one must ask what law binds it and how, and against whom it would be enforced?”

Things got even worse in when the U.S. and NATO began bombing Libya in March 2011, Webb asserts:

Was our country under attack, or under the threat of imminent attack? No. Was a clearly vital national interest at stake? No. Were we invoking the inherent right of self-defense as outlined in the UN Charter? No. Were we called upon by treaty commitments to come to the aid of an ally? No. Were we responding in kind to an attack on our forces elsewhere, as we did in the 1986 raids in Libya after American soldiers had been killed in a Berlin disco? No. Were we rescuing Americans in distress, as we did in Grenada in 1983? No…
Under the objectively undefinable rubric of “humanitarian intervention,” President Obama has arguably established the authority of the president to intervene militarily virtually anywhere without the consent or the approval of Congress, at his own discretion and for as long as he wishes. It is not hyperbole to say that the president himself can now bomb a country with which we maintain diplomatic relations, in support of loosely aligned opposition groups that do not represent any coalition that we actually recognize as an alternative. We know he can do it because he already has done it.

If lawmakers aren’t careful, they could wind up being as irrelevant to national security as the Joint Chiefs.